Free speech

Ah the internet and social media – our beloved guardian angels of free speech and democracy! Or, is this an idealism we’re chasing in the 21st century? Perhaps, expecting them to be guarding angels is a little melodramatic. Let’s just take them as enablers of free speech and democracy, keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the internet and social media per se. It’s us – the users – who make things difficult for everyone else. Although it’s obvious that anything we put up on the internet is expected to elicit responses, good or bad, and that we should be prepared for criticism and all eventualities, sometimes things do get nasty. And we, the internet users, snap back viciously.

Take, for instance, the latest criticism and hate mail targeted at Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic in the United States who is raising funds for her project on the objectification of women in video games. Although she has managed to raise much more than what she had anticipated, she has become the target of criticism and hatred from some sections of the cyberworld.

Sarkeesian has been receiving hate mail and tweets containing vicious words and threats; doctored pornographic images of hers have been floating around on the internet; attempts have been made to hack into her website and her other internet accounts; her Wiki page has been edited to call her names; her YouTube videos have been flagged as terrorism…

In short, Sarkeesian is being bullied, strong-armed and threatened into submission and backing off from her project. But Sarkeesian is not giving in. She is pursuing her project single-mindedly.

Image courtesy gigaom.com

Image courtesy gigaom.com

This cyber-bullying, this silencing of free speech on the internet, is not new. It has happened before – some of it in my own country, India. Bloggers seem to have been at the receiving end in some of these cases. Last month, for instance, I blogged about a Mumbai film journalist, Soumyadipta Banerjee, who had to remove posts from his blog because the posts had offended a Bollywood celebrity.

In early 2009, a blogger named Chetan Kunte had to remove content from his blog in which he had accused a well-known media personality of irresponsible and shoddy journalism on the media personality’s coverage of the ‘26/11’ 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Even earlier in 2005, blogger Pradyuman Maheshwari was coerced by a leading Indian media conglomerate into shutting down his operations (Mediaah) entirely.

This dampening of free speech on the internet, this silencing of internet citizens, does not end with media houses or powerful individuals in India. A year ago, the Indian government had tried to bring in internet censorship (and it still does), banning content on websites and social media channels. Failing this, the government initiated talks with relevant stakeholders such as internet and companies, various technical communities, the media, ISPs, legal experts and members of civil society. No specific internet laws have emanated from this yet.

It’s not that the Indian government should not take an active interest in ensuring ethical behaviour, self-expression and creation of suitable content on the internet and on social media channels. The issue is about control. It’s about striking a balance between free speech in a democracy while protecting individuals, organisations and the government itself from internet harassment. It’s about ensuring that free speech is a reality in a democracy like India, and not an ideal to wish for.

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